Punchinello is an Americanized singing game of European origin which entered the USA American repertoire of games around the turn of the 20th century. Apparently, some version of it may have traveled over with Italian immigrants.

The American versions had one player, as the "Punchinello," at center of a ring of children. There are numerous versions.

It appeared, in what may be a poorly translated form in American music school books as:

Ho, look at me!
Punchinello, funny fellow.
Ho, look at me!
Punchinello, funny do.
Below is a simple version I learned from a child in 2001.
The children form a circle. One child in center of this ring is the "Punchinello."

The children sing:

What can you do,
Punchinello, funny fellow?
What can you do,
Punchinello, funny fellow?
Now the "Punchinello" does an action--hopping on one foot, jumping jacks, clapping, spinning around, etc.

The children in the ring copy whatever action that "Punchinello" is doing, while singing:

We can do that too,
Punchinello, funny fellow,
We can do it, too,
Punchinello, funny fellow!
All the children put their hands on their hips and shake their heads, speaking aloud:
"Punchinello, funny fellow!"
Another "Punchinello" is picked and the game repeats.
A Baltimore version of this American singing game was collected from 20th century Baltimore, MD. Baltimore has its own Little Italy. The Baltimore version of the game was called "Punch and Netta." (One could speculate that meant it could have derived from American Baltimore children misunderstanding another version of the name, "Pulcinella," as "Punch 'n Nella.")

"Punchinello" is one of those intriguing and enigmatic figures in folklore that wander all over through several cultures and periods. He absolutely orginated in Italy, where he traditionally appeared in a baggy white suit with a black half mask with a nose resembling a bird beak. He is a short clownish figure often having a large pot belly or paunch.

The name "Punchinello" is the Anglicized pronuciation of the Italian "Pulcinella" which is a version of the Neapolitan Pulecenella. The Neapolitan Pulecenella dervived from the Italian dialectal Pollecinella. Many argue that Pollecinella is diminutive of pollecena, which is a "young turkey pullet" or "young turkey cock." Supposedly, the name related to the resemblance between the nose on the traditional mask and the beak on the turkey bird. Ultimately, the name has Latin roots pullus which is a "young chicken."

The character of "Punchinello" or "Pulcinella" was a Neapolitan stock character of the 16th-century Italian Commedia dell'Arte ("comedy of craft"). He was the chief character who often had the role of a grotesque or absurd buffoon.

Intrerestingly, "Punchinello" or "Pulcinella" developed as a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry. Aside from the Commedia dell'Arte, the character of Pulcinella also developed independently in Neapolitan puppet theater (teatro dei burattini) eventually becoming an emblem of traditional puppetry.

In any case, this figure in popular entertainment traveled from Italy through France and into England in the 17th century, the show and costume changing as it moved.

In France, he was known as "Polichinelle" and picked up a patchwork, more colorful costume. In 1666, the character's name was recorded in English as "Polichinello." Other spellings included "Pugenello" and "Punchinello." The most enduring Anglicized form of the name was "Punchinello."

[The cheerfully pugilistic, psychopathic British puppet "Mr. Punch" who murders several individuals, including his wife, Judy, did derive from "Punchinello." However, "Mr. Punch" seemed to have nothing to do with the American singing game of "Punchinello."]

Some authors state the character of "Punchinello" or "Pulcinella" ultimately come from the comedies of the Roman Empire, from Greek theater and from Etruscan festivals. Raven Grimassi in his Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft suggested an Etruscan origin for the clown figure of "Punchinello" or "Pulcinella." Grimassi wrote that John A. Elliot in The Mask in Etruscan Religion, Ritual, and Theater, published in 1986, claimed that this figure derived from Etruscan spirits of death. Grimassi added, "The early Etruscan tomb images depict the spirits of death with large noses..." (p.332)

copyright 2011 Myth Woodling

Raven Grimassi, Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft, 2nd edition revised and expanded, 2000, 2003 Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes,
Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage, 1987

Melanie & Mike, Words to the Wise,
Take Our Word For It
, 1995-2003

Punchinello, Music Resource, Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez
Elementary School, 3000 South Lawndale Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60623,
http://www.ortiz.cps.k12.il.us/musicweb/punchinello.htm Aradia home page